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Best of SA 2013: 4/24/2013
Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy Disappear into ‘Eleanor Rigby’

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EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz on environmental justice, Texas' (and the GOP's) war against his agency, and the recent environmental summit in Corpus Christi

Photo: Greg Harman, License: N/A

Greg Harman

Al Armendariz

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

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Many in the environmental justice community and those living near the refineries say there needs to be a cumulative emissions study.

There's absolutely good science that needs to be done on cumulative emissions. EPA historically has worked on pollutants one at a time. But what we know is people, especially those that live very close to these facilities, they're being exposed to multiple pollutants simultaneously. And so we certainly do need to do studies on how that cumulative exposure affects people. Because it could be very different than studying those pollutants one at a time. But in addition to that we certainly don't want to study communities to death. We know it would be better if people didn't live close to refineries. We know it would be easier when it comes to emergency response if there was more distance between facilities and people. And so at the same time that we're doing the studies to fully understand cumulative exposure, there are some practical things I want all of us to do — the city, industry, my office, the EJ [environmental justice] community — see if we can do something collective to add some space between these facilities and these homes.

What's been the role of industry so far in these discussions? What do you expect out of them?

We've had a good dialogue with the industry in Corpus Christi. I've spoken individually with many of them. I've gotten to know many of the people who are the executives of these companies that operate these large refineries. I really do think EPA's goals and the goals of these major industrial facilities are well aligned. They don't want to emit any more than they have to. They're looking for common sense ways to reduce emissions. They know that having people so close to their fence lines is difficult for them, and it's difficult for me. And so they have been active in helping to get this summit going. And many of them are here today. I certainly hope they stay engaged throughout the process with these working groups. It's very clear to me that their goals of profitability and economic development are really essential to environmental protection. There are so many examples in our region and across the country of companies that have been down on economic times and start cutting corners. And other companies that have gone bankrupt and have left environmental disasters all over the country that have to get cleaned up. So I certainly want to see these companies profitable so they in turn have the economic capacity to make investments to reduce emissions and so they can engage in voluntary measures to clean up. I hope they see in me somebody who has an understanding that the economic growth and their economic success and my goals of public health and environmental protection really can go hand in hand.

There's this combative approach and rhetoric from much of the Texas political establishment regarding EPA. How big of a barrier is that in finding common ground, voluntary measures the TCEQ, industry, and EPA can commit to in places like Corpus?

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